Everything Old is New Again
By Raoul Hernandez
JANUARY 12, 1998: By the winter of 1977, when the Rolling Stones entered EMI's Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris to record what would become Some Girls (and parts of Emotional Rescue and even Tattoo You), the Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks, and Elvis Costello had already released that year's most important albums -- all debuts that would more or less change the course of popular music. The revolution was on. The following year, when Some Girls was released, "punks" like the Police and Pretenders were materializing at the next-big-thing rate and producing urgent music that forced "dinosaurs" like the Stones, Kinks, and Who to make great albums -- some say their last great albums. Back across the Atlantic, meanwhile, December 1977 hailed a second but equally revolutionary uprising, one that tumbled onto dance floors everywhere the moment Saturday Night Fever was released. Remaining on the charts the entirety of 1978 while selling millions and millions of copies worldwide, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack ushered in a new musical era distinctly at odds with what was going on in jolly ol' England. Audience-wise, the chasm between these two exploding subcultures wasn't so deep that good old American Yank punks like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith couldn't co-exist with the Studio 54 disco crowd, and a third exploding pop culture movement, cocaine.
Dubbing the Some Girls sessions the "No More Fast Numbers" sessions, Keith Richards' smart-ass irony actually informs a whole slew of rock & roll albums released between 1977 and the early Eighties when cocaine was as prevalent in the music industry (and society as a whole) as LSD had been a decade earlier. In fact, the glam coke era probably extends all the way up until the moment Nirvana's Nevermind finally snuffs the West Coast blow connection -- hair metal -- and its last real offering (and band), Guns 'N' Roses' Use Your Illusion. The rest you know: Punk kills metal dead again, and then pulls its own Sid Vicious when Kurt Cobain kills himself and reveals most of what passes for "grunge" to be Foreigner revisted.
That year, 1994, the Stones coughed up a belated response to "grunge" (Punk Wave No. 2), Voodoo Lounge, a back-to-basics affair defined by the genre's garage aesthetics and lauded by critics as the quartet's rawest album since, you guessed it, Some Girls. And this cycle, apparently, is a perennial one, because as 1997 came to a close, the Rolling Stones managed yet another winter release, Bridges to Babylon. Born in the fin de siècle era defined by "electronica" -- studio-stitched dance music -- Bridges to Babylon is the band's most adventurous album in years, and while not as hip as David Bowie's foray into dance music earlier this year, Earthling, it is nevertheless a good measuring stick against which to sum up 1997. Better yet is Pop, an album by a group that may just be the Rolling Stones of its time, U2.
In Rolling Stone magazine's annual "The Year in Recordings," David Fricke summed up 1997 succinctly in writing about Pop: "The conventional, major-label A&R wisdom on electronica boils down to this: 'If only we could find a rock band that plays dance music and can write real songs.' U2 did just that on Pop -- and nobody cared." Exactly right. Prodigy did it better, perhaps -- harder, certainly -- on the excellent The Fat of the Land, putting up respectable numbers in the sales column as well, but what made Pop so undeserving of its critical and somewhat commercial snub (it only sold a couple million copies) was that not only did it have "real" songs, it had a real band at the heart of all that computer-generated dance music. Which was the very real problem with "electronica."
While you could pick out any number of good "electronica" albums released in '97, offerings from the Crystal Method, Aphex Twin, BT, Moby, GusGus, and Spring Heel Jack, the end-of-the-year hosannas for "junglist" Roni Size/Reprazent's New Forms brought the whole genre into focus as rather soulless dance music too technically precise for most casual listeners. Not that it wasn't ground breaking on a certain level, as the arresting collage of dance beats and found sounds on the Chemical Brothers' aural mindwarp Dig Your Own Hole proved. But let's face it, passion is found in the human heart, not a disk drive, and even when "electronica" dons the guise of screaming punk rock, as on the "digital hardcore" of Atari Teenage Riot's Burn, Berlin, Burn!, it still seems to be missing that certain "kick out the jams, motherfucker!" je ne sais quoi.
Nevertheless, "electronica," in all its various forms of dance music (house, acid house, techno, jungle, drum 'n' bass, trip-hop), slopped over onto most attendant subgenres of popular music -- especially if it came from the continent. Stereolab, for instance, working on its ninth album, the aptly titled Dots and Loops, found that times had finally caught up to them, as they had for Glaswegians Primal Scream, whose Vanishing Point was the same potent slice of studio wizardry and sugary pop/rock that Screamadelica had been six years earlier. Portishead, Sneaker Pimps, Audioweb, Hooverphonic, Dubstar -- a whole slew of 'em -- slid their dance and dub down your throat like a big wet tongue.
On these shores, the European underground dance scene was less an influence than psychedelics and "space rock," particularly since Cornershop's When I Was Born for the 7th Time was this year's cute 'n' clever answer to Beck's Odelay (is it just me or is Cornershop merely Al Stewart for twentysomethings?). A spectrum analysis finds Rickie Lee Jones' wretched major label "electronica" CD Ghostyhead on one end, while the Poster Children's self-released dots and loops CD, the pseudonymous Salaryman, anchored the other. As a matter of fact, some of the best domestic "electronica" releases were pretty straightforward dance albums, a group of good ones coming out of the Pacific Northwest and Canada with groups like Delerium, Loop Guru, Malacoda, and Perfume Tree.
One group that made the leap from that scene onto a major label was Sky Cries Mary, a gypsy troupe of rock & rollers who marry Dead Can Dance exotica with alternative rock. While their whirling 'n' twirling Moonbathing on Sleeping Leaves wasn't the Galaxie 500-ish "space rock" masterpiece it could have been -- that was Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space -- it did represent a movement that hasn't yet come into its own. Yo La Tengo's absolutely mesmerizing I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One is about as good as "space rock" gets, and whether one considers instrumental exploratory fare like the Sea and the Cake, Trans Am, and a whole solar system of Thrill Jockey and Trance Syndicate bands "space rock" or "noodletronica" matters less than the fact that it was one of the more beguiling sounds of 1997.
Stewing together "space rock" and "electronica" in the boiling cauldron that is Jamaican dub, American producer and visionary Bill Laswell -- the Lee Scratch Perry of modern music -- and James Blood Ulmer released one of the more psychedelic albums this year under the name Third Rail. Released on Verve, South Delta Space Age is no jazz album -- more Parliament/Funkadelic booty rock -- but it reminds one that the year in jazz was a fairly quiet one.
Verve and Blue Note, as usual, released strong work from stalwarts and dependables, Joe Henderson's new reading of Porgy &Bess on the former label being particularly notable, as was Henry Threadgill's overflowing Where's Your Cup? on Columbia (Sony's classical division, by the way, with releases from Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor, and even Joe Jackson did some nice work in '97, too). Also worth noting was Ark 21 (Wayne Hancock, Pat MacDonald) putting out the debut of Liquid Soul, a burning jazz/hip-hop collective from Chicago.
Of course, most ground-breaking done in jazz in 1997 came from the truly visionary avant-garde labels ECM and Nonesuch, with the former releasing albums like the stunning Angels (Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, and Bill Frisell), and work from Jack Dejohnette, Keith Jarrett, Lena Willemark, and a host of others, while the latter label documented jazz's own dance movement with a trio of Cuban releases: Introducing Ruben Gonzalez, the Ry Cooder-produced Buena Vista Social Club, and Afro-Cuban All Stars A Toda Cuba le Gusta. Though not nearly in that same league, Charlie Hunter's jazz reinterpretation of Bob Marley's 1975 classic, Natty Dread (Blue Note), also struck new territory.
In fact, it was another Marley-related release (and one of the most beguiling albums of the year), Bill Laswell's Dreams of Freedom: Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub that not only hints at the future of jazz (Laswell is readying a Miles Davis remix album), but also provides the crossover from the Brit-proliferating "electronica" to American "electronica" -- known for decades on these shores as "hip-hop." Viewed as a soul singer in the continuum of Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, Marley is the link to modern hip-hop soulmen like Michael Franti of Spearhead or the Fugees' Wyclef Jean. While only Jean's Carnival is worthy of year-end Top Ten polls, both it and Spearhead's Chocolate Supa Highway blur the line between R&B and hip-hop just as surely as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's two disc sprawl, The Art of War. It is here one suddenly remembers that hip-hop and "electronica" are both founded on old dance beats and found sounds.
Seen in this way, three of this year's most galvanizing releases, Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death, Puff Daddy & Family's No Way Out, and Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever were bold artistic statements in the "electronica" frontier. That's right, "electronica." More obvious perhaps were sound collages of DJ Krush's Milight and Dr. Octagon's Dr. Octagonecologyst/Instrumentalyst set -- as opposed to the work of grand old men of the genre like LL Cool J, Rakim, and KRS-ONE -- but think about it; hip-hop and "electronica" are flip sides of the same 12-inch. Both hip-hop and "electronica" even suffer from the same pitfall: marijuana.
The great failure of hip-hop in recent times has been its inability to translate recorded work live. There are exceptions, of course -- always -- (locally they were De La Soul at Liberty Lunch and the Roots at the Texas Union Ballroom), but so many modern hip-hop collectives are too stoned to even bother with touring. A show in New York, maybe one in L.A., and that's it. If you live in, say, Austin, you can forget abou seeing any real version of Wu-Tang. "Electronica" is the same. Look at the reviews accorded trip-hop's grand master flash, Tricky -- he's won't even face the audience. Word on Finley Quaye (Tricky's uncle), whose out-of-left-field Maverick a Strike finally -- finally -- brings reggae into the Nineties, is that live, he's wildly uneven. Same problem? Who knows, but if the late Sixties is defined by psychedelics, the Seventies/Eighties swing crystallized by coke, and the grunge movement of the Nineties identified as the back-to-smack era, then the musical legacy of the end of the century is certainly pot.
So, "electronica" is a bust, and rap and hip-hop won't be coming to a club near you. What's left? How about Lone Star soul sensation Erykah Badu and her simmering debut Baduizm, which, like Me'Shell Ndegeocello's Peace Beyond Passion last year, proved that great soul music is sorely lacking from these modern times. Along with divine jazz divas like Dee Dee Bridgewater and Cassandra Wilson, and world music goddesses like Cesaria Evora and Oumou Sangare -- all of whom made strong albums this year -- Badu is on the leading edge of a soul music market that hasn't even begun to be plundered; witness the commercial excitement generated by superb soul collections such as Rhino's Beg, Scream & Shout! The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul, and TVT's near-perfect 3-CD Rhythm & Revue set. And if it's soul you want, you best not have missed the soundtrack to When We Were Kings or the Island Anniversary collection's Rhythm & Blues Heat.
Unfortunately, soul music didn't exactly beat a path anywhere in 1997, leaving just as it did in 1977 two distinct musical movements at loggerheads: English pop and American roots music. There was all that talk about women and Lilith, and the media-blitzed still in all likelihood missed Loreena McKennit's superb The Book of Secrets, Chantal Kreviazuk's Under These Rocks, Beth Orton's Trailer Park, and even k.d. lang's smart 'n' sultry drag, but 1997 still boiled down to a soccer match and after-game drinking bout between scruffy English lads and scruffy American alt-country rockers.
Thus, it was Radiohead (OK Computer), the Verve (Urban Hymns), Travis (Good Feeling), London Suede (Coming Up), Blur (Blur), Oasis (Be Here Now), Baby Chaos (Love Your Self Abuse), Charlatans UK (Tellin' Stories), Longpigs (The Sun Is Often Out), and Supergrass (In It for the Money) versus Richard Buckner (Devotion + Doubt), Whiskeytown (Strangers Almanac), Old 97s (Too Far to Care), Bottle Rockets (24 Hours a Day), Jim White (Wrong-Eyed Jesus!), Blazers (Just for You), Robbie Fulks (South Mouth), Steve Earle (El Corazon), Buddy Miller (Poison Love), and Jayhawks (Sound of Lies). Winner? Austin, of course.
While it's hard to pit the sublime and arty AOR pretensions of Radiohead's OK Computer against the stark songs and Southerwestern flavor of Richard Buckner's equally sublime Devotion + Doubt, it's the latter that virtually has to get the nod, if only because at least Austin got to see Buckner. Radiohead, like half the above list, didn't make it to Austin, while all the "Americana" acts on the above list did. Odds are this is true for the rest of the country, too, translating into the probability that in places like Texas, impressionable musicians are going to be more influenced by Steve Earle and the Old 97s than they are by London Suede and Supergrass.
Certainly, Austin releases bear this out. In the year of Townes Van Zandt's death, the category simply known as "songwriter" was the fullest and best. Starting with a trio of exceedingly good debuts from Austin's future Lilith contingent, Kacy Crowley (Anchorless), Trish Murphy (Trish Murphy), and Ana Egge (River Under the Road), through the wisdom of wonderfully mature work from ladies of more experience, Jean Caffeine (Knocked Down 7 Times Got Up 8), Lourdes Pérez (Vestigios), and Eliza Gilkyson (Redemption Road), and settling on the world-wise Gwil Owenisms of Austin's grand dame, Toni Price (Sol Power), the ladies had a great year. Abra Moore, with the commercial success of her light-hearted Strangest Places , and the rollicking Carter Family antics of the Damnations (Live Set) -- a grassroots favorite for best local album -- only reinforce this.
The boys meanwhile, led by Robert Earl Keen, who made the album he absolutely needed to make for a major label, the rich 'n' real Picnic, and Jon Dee Graham's stunning Tom Waits album, Escape From Monster Island, didn't do too bad either. Danny Barnes showed Hogs on the Highway to be the Bad Livers' best way to skin a mule, while Bruce Robison's Wrapped promises bigger and better things for him and wife Kelly Willis when he starts making albums for Sony. Butch Hancock (You Coulda Walked Around the World), Jimmy LaFave (Road Novel), Ray Wylie Hubbard (Dangerous Spirits), Stephen Doster (Rosebud), and Pat MacDonald (...Sleeps With His Guitar) all proved varying degrees of prowess with a pen, and Mike Nicolai's eponymous debut is one of this year's better-kept secrets.
Alt-country, looking like three ass-kickin' Texas releases, Austin's Reckless Kelly (Millican), Denton's Slobberbone (Barrel Chested), and Houston's Hollisters (The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure), combined with a quartet of universally terrific albums from local "real country" acts Dale Watson (I Hate These Songs), Charlie Burton (Charlie Burton and the Texas Twelve Steppers), Wayne Hancock (That's What Daddy Wants), and the Derailers (Reverb Deluxe) far outweighed English pop fluff (Cotton Mather, Kontiki), "space rock" (the Pilot Ships, There Should be an Entry Here), and "electronica" (Govinda, O Earthly Gods).
By far the best "alternative" local release of 1997 was Silver Scooter's pure pop for power people perfection, The Other Palm Springs, while harder-edged bands better befitting the punk ethos of the "alternative" tag also put out strong albums: Starfish (Frustrated), Spoon (Soft Effects EP), Glorium (Eclipse), and Soak (Soak). Straight-out AOR stomp like Vallejo, early raw Sixties rave-up (The Dropouts, Come On), and destroy-the-bar Seventies stooge rock (Buick MacKane, The Pawn Shop Years) also distinguished themselves here in paradise, with the raucous all-Replacements-covers compilation So What crowning the lot. Good blues releases were limited to Miss Lavelle White's It Haven't Been Easy and Chris Duarte's Tailspin Headwhack, while jazz pretty much began and ended with Fred Sanders' dancing 'n' tapping East of Vilbig, and Maryann Price's equally special Hot 'n' Cole.
Whew. Did we forget anything? How 'bout them Bill Hicks titles on Rykodisc? National? Only some "old farts" like Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Patti Smith -- all of whom put out good/great albums in 1997. Are any of them "electronica" releases? Hardly. Still, I'll take Bridges to Babylon and Pop just the way they are -- "electronica" style -- all the while waiting patatiently for the next cycle to come around again (hair metal?) when everything old is new again.
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